By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2005-01-13 Print this article Print

Technology and business executives who fail to manage the psychology of their projects do so at their own peril. Elisabeth Nash knew she'd have to coax good people onto a project to overhaul the processes and systems at the mortuary giant. Yet, they might

Team Psychology
Nash knew how to be the boss, but she also knew that the boss can't do it alone. A successful project team includes versatile, knowledgeable and stable people who feel enthusiastic about the project's goals and what they can help accomplish. She had to find those kinds of people.

They didn't have to know how to code software, but they couldn't be intimidated about working elbow-to-elbow with people who did.

The HMIS software package chosen to replace the old, homegrown systems had all the functions Service Corp. needed. The new approach provided, for example, a contract template, on screen, for funeral-service and related forms required by county and state governments; the ability to manage customer payments and sales commissions online; and customer histories in a database that could be mined for trends and analyzed for possible repeat business.

But the package was built for smaller funeral companies, with up to eight or 10 locations in a single state. Nash would have to make sure it got rewritten to support the 3,265 sites at Service Corp., which is twice the size of its three biggest rivals combined.

In the recoding, there was the chance to tweak the packaged procedures to suit Service Corp. For that, Nash wanted input from the field. But she also wanted to put respected in-house experts from across the country on the Delta Project team, to work daily with developers to make sure the needs she saw on her 15-stop tour would be included in the finished software.

She wanted the company's best funeral, cremation, legal, accounting and other professionals. These people would be the links from "corporate" to field and between field and techies. They would step developers through lingo and procedures necessary to doing funeral work. They would detect the truth when peers in the field claimed the new software didn't work right. They would help spread a positive message to their peers about the coming system.

Requesting subject-matter experts for a technology project isn't a mind-blowing idea for project managers. But sometimes, Nash knew, business units send their underperformers. "They figure they can get rid of a problem for a while," she says.

To avoid that, Nash again enlisted Webb, the influential executive vice president of operations, to persuade senior managers to release their valuable people—those consistently rated highest in customer satisfaction surveys. They would give Delta Project a better shot at success.

From the recommendations of high-ranking managers, Nash called candidates or met them in person. She scanned for articulate people who showed initiative.

Lisa Wolfsen, a highly respected Service Corp. funeral director in New Jersey, for example, was working on a master's degree in communications. She already had a psychology degree.

Candidates also had to welcome the use of technology; old-school death-care professionals often shun computers in favor of familiar paper systems. She didn't want the kind who had office administrators enter their funeral contracts on the computer for them.

Blair Wallin, a cemetery superintendent in Vancouver, British Columbia, was known for long advocating the computerization of graveyard records.

Once Wolfsen and Wallin were identified, however, Nash had to sell these stars on coming to work at headquarters for two years. They would be replaced in their regular jobs, with no written guarantee of a position at the end of the project.

She appealed to her hand-picked prospects in two ways.

First, she promised to try to find work for them after Delta Project. After all, they would know more about the new systems than almost anyone, becoming that much more valuable to the company, she said.

Then she played on their personal motivations, gleaned from some initial conversations she'd had with the candidates.

For instance, Wolfsen, then 38, debated whether to uproot herself from her lifelong home in New Jersey to move to Texas. "I had been at my location several years and was embedded in the community. I love funeral service," says Wolfsen, who had been in the business for 15 years, six of them with Service Corp. "It was a risk."

Nash tried to develop empathy. When they first spoke, Nash asked Wolfsen how she got into her career. Wolfsen said she felt pulled in by the idea of helping people pained by a loss. Nash and Wolfsen talked about how, as part of Delta Project, Wolfsen would have the chance to develop tools fellow funeral directors could use to ease others' suffering.

"I was going to do the best I could for my field partners because ultimately, it would serve the families," Wolfsen remembers thinking.

Nash appealed to unstated motivations. She had a sense that Wallin would relish the chance to infuse the new system with his own ideas, brewed during 26 years on the technically foreign soil of Vancouver. Indeed, Wallin wanted to make sure that all cemetery property was inventoried and entered into the new information system. That way, when families come to locate the graves of loved ones long deceased, he could quickly get lot and row numbers. No more paging through books. "Many families question, Why isn't this computerized?" he says.

When Wallin heard he would be given the chance to help develop systems like that, he signed on.

Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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